“War is hell
You can’t change things on your own”
There’s something simply exquisite about The Return of the Soldier, an intimate chamber musical tucked away into the Jermyn Street Theatre that might just be one of the best things I’ve seen this year. Granted, it may contain a checklist of some of my favourite things – the experience of women in wartime, a score for piano and cello, Laura Pitt-Pulford – but they combine into something above and beyond, a powerful meditation on the psychological effects of war on those not at the front, a valuable reminder in a year that commemorates the start of the First World War that the impact of war ripples through all levels of society.
Tim Sanders’ book adapts Rebecca West’s novel from 1918, a piece of literature that emerged directly from the author’s experience during wartime, to give us characters – but particularly women – with rich emotional lives. Captain Christopher Baldry has returned from the frontline with shellshock and instead of falling into the arms of his upper-class wife Kitty, his memory has obliterated her and so it is the earthier charms of early love Margaret that he craves. She’s stuck in an unfulfilling marriage herself so is faced with conflict when asked to help cure his amnesia, knowing full well that to do so will end her nostalgic fling.
Charles Miller’s lush and complex score is ideally suited to the emotional intensity of the story and it is never better than when he is interweaving vocal lines and harmonies to incredibly stirring effect. The Act 2 opener ‘Our Island Life’ is a perfect, goose-bump-inducing case in point as the unexpected turn in events leaves everyone in turmoil. Miller is also a dab hand at show-stopping balladry too, affording both Kitty and Margaret late moments of great acuity. Zoe Rainey’s ‘No Man’s Land’ laments her position beautifully, a powerful statement from a character more used to buttoning up her emotions and Pitt-Pulford lays out Margaret’s painful dilemma in the achingly gorgeous ‘I Know How This Ends’.
The women are supported well by Stewart Clarke’s neatly clipped Chris, his selective amnesia protecting him in more ways than one, Charlie Langham’s childhood friend Jenny and Michael Matus who doubles effectively as Margaret’s pedestrian husband and the vivacious doctor charged with curing the patient. Charlotte Westenra’s flawless direction ensures that the characters bear the scrutiny we are able to give and in Simon Anthony Wells’ inspired design, keeps the action flowing beautifully on even this limited stage. Simon Lambert’s musical direction likewise has elegant movement through the swells of the score and altogether, it creates something really special indeed. Book now, I’ve already booked my return trip.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 20th September
Photos: Darren Bell